My visit to the RAF Museum at Hendon was a long while ago now, almost eight years, but a lot of the aircraft are still fresh in my memory.
One of my favourites was the Messerschmitt Me 262A-2a, the first jet fighter to experience actual combat:
The aircraft was impossible to photograph all in one go:
Work on the aircraft started in 1938 and proceeded at a leisurely pace. It made its first flight under jet power in 1942:
Before that it was tested with a propeller:
When the two jet engines were fitted, the scientists continued with the tail wheel but found that there was a high chance of fuel sloshing backwards by reason of gravity and then catching fire. After that they changed to a nose wheel:
Perhaps the most famous thing ever said about the aircraft was by the charismatic fighter pilot Adolf Galland, who took the new jet fighter for a spin one morning. When he returned he gave his verdict:
“What an aircraft! It was as though the Angels were pushing!”
In December 1943, though, Hitler, in his infinite wisdom, decided that the Me 262 should be manufactured as a fighter bomber so that it could oppose the Allied forces when they carried out their inevitable invasion in, as he thought, the Pas-de-Calais area of northern France. Nobody on the design team seems to have agreed with him. but it still pushed back the operational début of the new fighter until July 1944.
The “Schwalbe” (Swallow) or Sturmvogel (“Storm Bird”) had a top speed of 559 mph and it was far faster and far more advanced than any Allied fighter:
In actual fact though, the Me 262 had very little real impact on the war. The factories built 1,400 aircraft but for various reasons only 200 were operational at any given time. They destroyed as many as 450 Allied aircraft but around 100 Me 262s were shot down, mainly by Mosquitoes and Mustangs.
The problems were many. Because of the activities of Bomber Command, engines were in short supply and this meant only 28 aircraft were delivered in June 1944, 59 in July, and just 20 in August. Those were not the only difficulties caused by the 24 hour bombing of the Reich and the Allies’ near total air superiority. The Me 262 frequently had to be built in what have been called “low-profile production facilities”, some of them in surprising places such as clearings in the forest.
Even the transportation of the raw materials and the parts for the aircraft was extremely hazardous with Allied aircraft always looking for trains to beat up. Furthermore, the continual presence of Allied fighters made it virtually impossible to train pilots in safety. There was just nowhere quiet for them to learn to fly such a radically different aircraft. And above all, the jet engines themselves were of dubious quality. They lasted only 50 hours and suffered from a continual lack of the rare metals needed to make the basic steel extremely heat resistant:
The engines used in the Gloster Meteor would last around 125 hours with an overhaul required after 60 hours. Sir Frank Whittle said that :
“it was in the quality of high temperature materials that the difference between German and British engines was most marked”.
The Americans, of course, were keen to take on board the wonderful shape of the Me 262. Even the lines of the Boeing 737 recall the Me 262 from twenty years before: